How To Fix Radio’s Commercial Problem

Radio’s commercial problems continue. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and in some cases, the problem worsens. Radio ads have been weak for quite some time, but production quality and creativity are nearing a crisis. That’s bad enough, but consider the crushing number of commercials on most stations. There are serious problems, but there are solutions. The key question is whether broadcasters are willing to fix it.

Radio’s Commercial Problems

Here are the issues:

Creativity. Copywriters have been replaced by account executives writing commercial copy for clients. It’s horrible, especially when the source of the copy is directly from the owner or manager of a business who wants to cram four minutes’ worth of content into a 30-second commercial.

The number of units. As revenue declines due to lower inventory demand, radio stations add more spots to retain revenue. But more available commercial slots don’t attract advertisers or bigger budgets. It only drives rates lower, opening the door to a lower class of advertisers—usually not advertisers with creative commercials. Radio has become a steady stream of per-inquiry ads, mattress stores, network fillers, and pawn shops.

Clock structure. Programmers play The Ratings Game by scheduling stop sets at the same times, or nearly the same time. As a result, listeners think all stations play way too many commercials. Station A goes into a stop set. Trying to escape the pain, all other buttons on the dial are playing spots, too.

Listeners Don’t Hate Commercials

The audience knows and understands that radio stations have to play commercials, and are quite forgiving. Even hyper-sensitive millennials are okay with some commercials, as shown in this study about the habits of 18-30-year-old listeners. They won’t tolerate as many as we cram down their throats, but they expect a reasonable amount.

The main problem is the quality of ads. Do the commercials have to be so painful? Do the stop sets have to be so long? Does every station have to break at the same time? It’s time to fix radio’s commercial problems.

NuVooDoo research shows that well over half of listeners to every format think radio commercials either “don’t apply to them” or “don’t sound good.” This should embarrass broadcasters.

The Opportunity

There’s a backlash in the ad community, and digital is getting hammered for similar reasons:

There are too many ads.

They’re not very good.

They are intrusive and disruptive.

And it turns out digital ads aren’t as accountable as we have been led to believe. So how can radio fight back?

Fewer Spots: What will happen when (not if) advertisers suddenly realize that they’re paying for ears on programming, not on their messages? Radio is doing exactly what advertisers are questioning about digital ads. We’re baiting the audience to tune in, but they’re not hearing the ads. We’re making it unlistenable. It’s time to rethink the programming clocks. Play fewer spots and distribute them differently. Listeners will not support the current spot loads. Let’s start by reducing the commercial loads to 6-8 minutes per hour.

More Stop Sets: Don’t play them in one or two breaks. PPM wisdom suggests that longer stop sets and fewer interruptions produce better ratings. It may be good for PPM, but it’s horrible for the art of radio, not to mention the benefit of advertisers. What if we played three commercial breaks per hour of just two minutes each? Or three minutes, if you must?

Improve The Quality: Most ads don’t work for the advertiser, and we’re doing a disservice by pretending they drive response. Account executives sell a schedule, get the ads on the air, and then hide under desks on Mondays, hoping the client doesn’t call to find out why the weekend sale was a bust. Let’s commit to quality and creativity. This alone would help preserve audience share.

Position It: Let’s get creative in programming. Radio has long battled the “too many commercials” complaint by promising commercial-free segments. Spotify is always commercial-free (or mostly). We’re missing the bigger picture. How about acknowledging that we play commercials but promise not to be extreme? Hearing authentic messaging promising short breaks and limited commercials would be refreshing.

A NuVooDoo study reveals that playing fewer commercials is highly appealing to rating respondents:

“a claim of playing 50% fewer commercials topped the list – followed very closely by a commercial-free hour. Among those likely not to accept the offer of participating in PPM, 50% fewer commercials is a decisive number one.


There’s a lot of hand-wringing about the future of radio, but the solution starts with fixing radio’s commercial problems:

Play fewer commercials and making them better.

That may be painful, but it’s hard to argue that hanging onto the current model is more about survival than growth. Until we make substantial changes, we won’t get to the heart of the problem. Current tactics are simply gaming the system, and the audience stopped playing that game long ago.

Pic generated by AI for

Tracy Johnson is a talent coach and programming consultant. He’s the President/CEO of Tracy Johnson Media Group. His book Morning Radio has been described as The Bible of Personality Radio and has been used by personalities worldwide.

1 thought on “How To Fix Radio’s Commercial Problem”

  1. I’m an old fart, long retired radio guy. My memory is that Westinghouse Broadcasting – with a stellar track record of setting the best prpgramming standards in radio – bolted from the NAB in the early 1980s, in part, because of the expansion of commercial minutes per hour.

    Your article is right on. It gives me the opportunity to trot out one favorite quotations (I believe attributed to Peter Drucker, look him up) – “All problems can be traced back to management.”

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